Boots Riley made his name in hip-hop music and went on to win attention and acclaim as a filmmaker, but his political activism has been at the heart of everything he’s done.
He’ll screen his film “Sorry to Bother You” — about a young African-American telemarketer who scores big when he learns to use his “white voice” — Monday at Sonoma State University. For him, the question-and-answer session that follows is just as important as the movie itself. It’s all about ideas.
“That’s why I made the movie,” the Oakland-based rapper, producer, director and screenwriter said. “The movie talks about what most people are feeling, and that has been muted for a long time.”
The film made a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018 and the South by Southwest festival in March, before its nationwide theatrical release last July.
Some fans were incensed when “Sorry to Bother You” got no Academy Award nominations, but Riley was philosophical about it, issuing a statement that said, in part: “We didn’t actually run a campaign that aimed to get a nomination.”
It’s the ongoing conversation that interests him now.
“I’ve had many different lives — organizing different grassroots projects, working as a promoter. And I did music,” he said. “I ended up knowing everybody.”
Case in point: Writer and editor Dave Eggers, founder of the McSweeney’s literary journal, published the then-unproduced script for “Sorry to Bother You” in 2014.
As for Riley’s musical career, he co-founded the political hip-hop group The Coup in 1991, and released six albums with the group as lead vocalist. The last one, released in 2012, was also titled “Sorry to Bother You.” He also did an album with the Street Sweeper Social Club in 2009.
He was born Raymond Lawrence Riley in Chicago, in 1971, to parents who advocated social justice. In 1977, at age 6, he arrived with his family in Oakland, where he grew up and eventually returned in 1993 after stints in Stockton and Pasadena.
First in music and now in film, Riley, 47, has kept his ideals at the forefront.
“I think that the people should democratically control the wealth that we create with our labor,” he told daily British newspaper the Guardian last year.
Riley has spoken out for his beliefs through his leadership of the activist group The Young Comrades and his involvement with the Occupy Oakland movement.
In “Sorry to Bother You,” protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield) is caught between the lure of corporate success and loyalty to his union activist friends.
“The ideas in the film are basically about what is the right life,” Riley said during an interview last week. “Often in life, the issue is not so much about who’s wrong, but who’s at bat.”
Riley relishes the open public discussions that follow his screenings of “Sorry to Bother You.”
“It’s 99 percent positive,” he said. “People are still showing up.”
Riley plans to continue his career as a screenwriter. “I’ve got a couple of script deals going on,” he said.
One of them is with Michael Ellenberg’s Media Res, with details yet to be disclosed. The other is with Annapurna Pictures, which served as the distributor with Sony on “Sorry to Bother You.”
If You Go
What: “Sorry to Bother You” film screening and Q&A with Boots Riley
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4
Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park
Information: 866-955-6040, sonoma.edu